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Chapter 8: Seven Pines and the Seven Days battles

  • Joseph E. Johnston
  • -- the change of commanders -- Lee's plan of the Seven Days battles -- Rainsford -- the pursuit -- playing at lost Ball -- “little Mac's lost the Thrigger” -- Early dawn on a battle-field -- Lee and Jackson.

I turn back a moment to the mud and the march up the Peninsula in order to relate a reminiscence illustrative of several matters of interest, aside from the mud, such as the state of the currency, the semi-quizzical character and bearing of the Confederate soldier and his marked respect for private property, as well as the practical limitations to that respect.

The column had halted at New Kent Court House, a little hamlet in the great pine forest, then and now boasting not over a half dozen houses, in addition to the tavern and the temple of justice. The infantry had broken ranks and most of them were resting and chatting, seated or reclined upon the banks of the somewhat sunken road. On one side had been a large cabbage patch from which the heads had been cut the preceding fall, leaving the stalks in the ground, which under the genial spring suns and rains,--it was the middle of May,--had greened out into what I think are termed “collards” or “sprouts.” They were just what the soldiers longed for and required, and an enterprising fellow sauntered up to the fence and offered an old woman, who stood near by, “a dollar for one of them green things.”

The price was fixed not by the seller but by the purchaser and clearly under the combined influence of three considerations: he thought so much of the sprout, and so little of the dollar, and then that dollar was probably the smallest money he had. [88]

No sooner said than done, and by the time the fellow paid his dollar and began browsing upon his sprout, the fence, which was about breast high and a very flimsy affair, was lined with soldiers, each with his right arm extended toward the old woman, a one-dollar Confederate Treasury note fluttering in his fingers.

I can see and hear them now: “Here, miss, please let me have one; I'm a heap hungrier'n these other men.” “But, mother, I'm a sick man and such a good boy; you ought to ‘tend to me first.” And so it went; and so went the old woman, backward and forward, jerking the sprouts out of the ground with wondrous speed, and as fast as she gathered an armful, striding along the fence, distributing them and raking in the dollars. I never witnessed a brisker trade in cabbage; but the buyers were so eager and the pressure of the leaning men became so great, that the fence, the frail barrier between “tuum and meum,” suddenly gave way, and quicker than I can tell it there wasn't a sprout left in the patch.

The men had no intention of breaking into the enclosure, but Providence having removed the fence, they followed up the Providential indications by removing the sprouts. It is not easy to say just what the purchasing power of these dollars was, but at that comparatively early date it is easy to see that the old woman, counting only the money she actually got, made an astounding sale of her entire crop of sprouts.

At last we arrived and took our places in the outer line of defenses of Richmond, McClellan at first establishing his lines behind the Chickahominy-his base of supplies being White House, on York River;--but he soon threw across, that is to our side, the Richmond side, of the Chickahominy River and swamp, a considerable force, strongly fortifying its position. Still it was manifest, or seemed to be, that this force on the Richmond side was not strong enough, without drawing aid from the other side, to repel an attack by the entire army of Johnston. The water in the swamp suddenly rose and apparently cut off communication with the other side. Seven Pines was an attack upon the Federal force on the Richmond side of the stream and swamp, with the view [89] of destroying it while it could not be reinforced from the main body beyond the stream, and, as is well known, General Johnston was struck down and totally disabled just at the crisis of the action.

When the commanding general of an army, especially upon the attacking side, is struck down while his plans are developing, it is ordinarily not possible to say with confidence what would have been the result of the engagement if no such calamity had befallen the attacking force. Seven Pines is therefore what may properly be termed an indecisive, if not an abortive battle. While the determined fighting on the Confederate side probably contributed to delay a general advance by McClellan, thus giving time for Lee to get thorough hold upon his army, to acquire their confidence, to mature his plans generally, and in particular to arrange for the withdrawal of Jackson from the valley, yet it must be admitted that, as to the main design of the Confederates, the battle was a failure.

To the Southern people and soldiers generally I have no doubt that, after the Seven Days battles, Seven Pines seemed to measure up to its chief significance as the fight which resulted in removing Joseph E. Johnston from the command of the main army of the Confederacy and putting Robert E. Lee in his place; and I think likely it did so present itself to me at the time-indeed such is my recollection. But after the war it was my good fortune to be honored with the close and intimate friendship of General Johnston,--closer and more intimate than I ever enjoyed with any other of the great Southern leaders,--and the knowledge thus acquired of the man himself has imparted to the strange fatality of his being stricken down at Seven Pines, with the tenth honorable wound received in battle, and to other unfortunate features of his career, a new and almost pathetic interest.

I found him, both as a man and a soldier, to be very different from my previous estimate of him and in every way above that estimate; so that, in looking upon the glorious career of Lee, I have sometimes felt inclined to say in behalf of my friend what he never said for himself: “Who can tell? It might have been!” And I do here say of him, in a [90] single sentence, that as a trained, professional soldier, I do not believe he ever had his superior, if indeed his equal, on this continent; while as a man he was one of the purest and strongest I ever knew, and perhaps the most affectionate.

When he ran for Congress in 1878 against the candidate of the combined Greenback and Republican parties, in a district including Richmond City and several counties, I was chairman of his campaign committee, and heartily wish it were appropriate to relate many of the incidents of the campaign so graphically illustrating how world-wide apart are the soldier and the politician. I must, however, be pardoned for telling one.

He came to his headquarters one morning much outraged at what I had not heard of and, of course, had not authorized — the erection of a banner, the night before, in the strongest manufacturing ward in the city, with his name upon it and some popular catchword or phrase squinting obscurely at “protection.” Upon military principles he held me responsible, but I soon ascertained that it had been done with the approval of a shrewd and experienced practical politician, who was also an influential member of the committee, and I deemed it proper to call that body together. Upon their assembling the General took the matter entirely out of my hands, saying substantially and with very hot emphasis: “Gentlemen, this is a matter about which I do not propose to ask your advice, because it involves my conscience and my personal honor. I spoke yesterday, at Louisa Court House, under a ‘free-trade’ flag. I have never ridden ‘both sides of the sapling,’ and I don't propose to learn how at this late day. That banner in Clay Ward comes down to-day or I retire from this canvass by published card to-morrow.”

I have said he was the most affectionate of men. It will surprise many, who saw only the iron bearing of the soldier, to hear that we never met, or parted for any length of time, that he did not, if we were alone, throw his arms about me and kiss me, and that such was his habit in parting from or greeting his male relatives and most cherished friends. I will only add that he and General Lee entertained the most exalted estimate and opinion of each other, and when-very [91] late in the war, I think in February, 1865-Lee was made practical dictator and commander-in-chief of all the armies of the Confederacy, his very first act as such was the restoration of Joseph E. Johnston to the command of the army from which he had been removed when Hood was put in his place.

As to the actual fighting at Seven Pines, we took part in it, yet not a very prominent part. Among the heroes of the day were our old Leesburg acquaintance, now Major-General D. H. Hill, whose division covered itself and its commander with blood and glory by one of the most dogged and deadly fights on record; and Captain, afterwards Colonel, Tom Carter, of the King William Artillery-yesterday the ideal artillerist, the idol of the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia, to-day an ideal Southern gentleman and the efficient Proctor of our State University. He is a cousin of Robert E. Lee, and combines more of the modesty, simplicity, purity, and valor of his great kinsman than any other living man of my acquaintance.

At Seven Pines his battery made a phenomenal fight against an overwhelming weight of metal, and while Carter was sitting on his horse, with one foot in the stirrup and the other thrown across the pommel of his saddle, directing the undismayed fight of the undestroyed fragment of his battery, up rode our old friend “D. H.,” and in the midst of the awful carnage and destruction once more gave expression to his monomania on the subject of fighting pluck by rising in his stirrups, saluting Carter and his men and declaring he had rather be captain of the King William Artillery than President of the Confederate States. But, as before said, this battle lives and will live in history, mainly as that which brought together for the first time the great Captain and the tattered soldiery, which ere long made the world ring with their fame.

Lee's grand plan of the Seven Days battles has been so often expatiated upon by able soldiers and writers that I could scarcely hope to add anything of intrinsic value to the discussion, so I propose to give what I have to say on the topic by way of post-bellum reminiscence.

It has been noted with surprise how many distinguished and devout clergymen of the Church of England have admitted [92] an irrepressible lifelong yearning for the army. My recollection is that this feeling crops out more or less in Kingsley; I am sure it runs like a refrain through Frederick William Robertson's life and letters and appears perhaps in his sermons. Years ago, when he who is now Rev. Dr. Rainsford, of St. George's, New York, was a glorious youth, he conducted a most successful mission in St. Paul's Church, Richmond, Va., and drew some of us very close to him. Toward the close of his work he asked Col. Archer Anderson and myself to walk with him over the field of the Seven Days battles, or as much of it as we could “do” on foot in a day. We started early one crisp February morning, the Colonel and I full of interest, but fearful that we could not keep up with the giant stride of our comrade, who was a trained athlete and one of the most heroic looking specimens of young manhood I ever beheld. We could not help thinking what a soldier he would have made. He was not then a Reverend Doctor and will, I am sure, pardon me for speaking of him on this occasion as “Rainsford.”

We explained to him the positions of the two armies just before the opening of the battle; that Lee's was on this, the Richmond side of the Chickahominy, which was generally impassable, except where the various roads, running out of Richmond like the spokes of a wheel, crossed it; that Mc-Clellan's army was on both sides of the stream or swamp, the bulk of it perhaps at this time on the Richmond side, but he had established and fortified free communication between his two wings; also that Jackson had been secretly drawn down from the Valley, and was now hovering, hawk fashion, somewhere over beyond and back of McClellan's right flank.

We next showed him the disparity in numbers, McClellan, by his own report, dated June 20, 1862, six days before the fighting began, having “Present for duty one hundred and five thousand eight hundred and twenty-five (105,825) men ;” and as he was anticipating battle and calling lustily for reinforcements, his force was probably substantially increased during these six days; while Lee, as demonstrated by Col. Walter H. Taylor, adjutant-general of his army, and Gen. Jubal A. Early, both better informed on the subject [93] than any other man ever was, had a little under or a little over eighty thousand (80,000) men present for duty when the fight opened, including Jackson's forces. Moreover, our inferiority in artillery, both as to number and character of guns, and as to ammunition also, was shocking.

Meanwhile, we were walking out, to and across the Chickahominy, by the Mechanicsville turnpike or the Meadow Bridge road, the last of which debouched on the other side of the stream, a little to our left of the end of the Federal lines, this being the road by which Lee's first attacking column filed out on the 26th of June, 1862, swung around Mc-Clellan's right flank and burst like an electric bolt upon the besieging army; the next and supporting column marching out by the Mechanicsville pike as soon as the first had cleared that road.

We explained Jackson's part in the plan, entering the fight the next day, on the left of the troops from Richmond and further in rear of McClellan's right flank; our combined forces driving his right wing--which was most ably handled and gallantly fought-back upon his centre, from which troops had been already drawn to support his right.

We pointed out to him the audacious boldness of Lee's plan in withdrawing approximately two-thirds of his army from the lines about Richmond for this attack, so that barely 28,000 men were left between the Federal army and the Confederate capital.

And when at last McClellan succeeded in getting all of his hard-pressed troops across to the Richmond side, this 28,000 men, who had not yet been engaged, uniting with their victorious comrades, fell like an avalanche (or rather had orders to fall — nearly one-third of them did not fire a shot) upon his wornout, beaten, and dispirited troops, drove them pell-mell under the guns of their James River fleet, and but for failure of subordinates to carry out instructions Lee would undoubtedly have dictated terms of surrender to his gallant foe.

We went out on the Meadow Bridge or Mechanicsville road, made the entire sweep, and returned, I think, by the Williamsburg road, the York River Railroad, and the New [94] Bridge road-at all events, we could scarcely have walked much, if any, less than twenty-eight to thirty miles. It was one of the most enjoyable days of my life. Rainsford caught the plan instantly. Going over it in detail with him, upon the very spots, and climbing the very slopes up which Lee's legions had rushed to the charge, he was thrilled to almost savage excitement, yelling like a rebel infantryman, his giant frame and his grand face absolutely inspired. In his martial ecstasy he threw his great arms about us, hugging us, to our imminent peril; declaring he had loved us both at first sight, but could never forget us now, and that to have lived in and been a part of those days and those battles was enough to lift men forever to heroic stature and character.

Our battery was among the 28,000 men left on the Richmond side of the Chickahominy to defend the capital, to occupy the attention of McClellan's troops on this side, and to prevent their recrossing to the aid of their hard-pressed comrades on the other; but the real defenders of the city were the men who stormed the bloody heights at Gaines' Mill and the positions at Mechanicsville and Cold Harbor. We were ill General Magruder's command and were kept most of the time hitched up and ready to move at a moment's warning. We were subjected now and then to fire from Federal batteries, suffered some loss of horses and equipment, and several of our men were wounded, but there were no serious casualties.

On the 29th of June-Sunday, I think it was-General Magruder advanced his troops along the Nine-Mile road to feel the enemy, when the main thing that struck us was the immense quantity of abandoned stores and equipment, indicating how abundant had been the supply of the Federal forces and how great the demoralization of their retreat. Near Savage Station there must have been acres covered by stacks of burning boxes of bacon, crackers, and desiccated vegetables-“desecrated vegetables,” our boys called them. To us poorly-equipped and half-starved rebels it was a revelation. Here and elsewhere we picked up a few rations and a few choice equipments of various kinds, but had really [95] neither time nor taste for plunder. There were other mementoes of their stay and of their hasty departure left by “our friends the enemy,” not quite so attractive or appetizing --the ghastly leavings of numerous field hospitals; pale, naked corpses and grotesque piles of arms and legs.

At one of these hospital stations we found an Irishman, whom we at first thought dying, as perhaps he was; but a swallow or two of the “crathur” revived him, and when, under such inspiration, did Pat ever fail to be communicative and. witty? He seemed to grasp the situation perfectly, and upon someone asking if the apparent flight might not after all be a trap-“Be dad,” said he, “an‘ ef it's a thrap, thin shure an‘ little Mac's lost the thrigger!”

At or near Savage Station, I think on this 29th of June, our brigade commander, General Griffith, was killed. In a shower of projectiles turned loose upon us by an unseen foe, at least half a shell from a three-inch rifled gun lodged in his body. The marvel is he did not die instantly, but I noted a desperate clinch of his fingers and the pallor of his face as he clasped his hands back of his head after he had fallen from his horse. He was a genial and cultured gentleman and regarded as a very promising officer. Colonel Barksdale, of the Thirteenth, at once took command of the brigade, and was soon commissioned brigadier.

We then crossed over to the York River Railroad, upon which we had what our men called our “railroad gun,” a siege piece, mounted on a flat-car with an engine back of it, the front of the car being protected by rails of track iron fastened upon an incline, the mouth of the gun projecting a little as from an embrasure. As it puffed up, a number of Federal batteries, invisible to us, opened upon it and upon the troops, and General Magruder sent an order for our guns to cross the railroad by the bridge hard by and come into battery in the smooth, hard field beyond.

We executed this dashing feat in gallant style, our captain riding ahead, the pieces in a wild gallop and the men on a wild run following. Again we seemed to be in full sight of an unseen enemy, for the bridge was raked and swept by a fearful storm of shot and shell. I distinctly remember the [96] shells bursting in my very face, and the bridge must have been struck repeatedly, the great splinters hurtling past and cutting the air like flashes of lightning, yet no one was hurt. Once across, we were ordered, “Forward into battery, left oblique, march!” which elaborate movement was executed by the men as if on drill. I could not refrain from glancing around, and was amazed to see every piece, limber, caisson and man in the exact mathematical position in which each belonged, and every man seemed to have struck the very attitude required by the drill-book. And there we all stood, raked by a terrific fire, to which we could not reply, being really a second line, the first-consisting of infantry alonehaving passed into the dense, forbidding forest in front, feeling for the enemy. And so it was most of the way to Malvern Hill. The country not admitting of the use of cavalry to any extent, we were constantly playing at “lostball,” and exposed to galling fire from a foe we could not see, and to whom we generally could not reply because our infantry was in the woods in front of us.

But two things delighted us greatly: Our old brigade had been in our rear when we dashed across the bridge, taking the fire from them-and not only did they witness this, but they were lying down behind us when we executed the beautiful movement and made the staunch, soldierly stand in the open field beyond; so they cheered us enthusiastically the next time we moved by them.

The second morning after,--just as we came into battery on the field of Frazier's (or Frayser's) farm, where the fighting had closed after dark the preceding day, and which on that morning presented perhaps the most ideal view of a battlefield I ever saw-captured cannon, exploded limbers and caissons, dead horses and dead men scattered over it in most picturesque fashion,--Col. Stephen D. Lee, of the artillery, afterwards lieutenant-general, rode out in front of our guns, took off his hat to us and said that he had witnessed and remarked upon our performance of two days ago, at the railroad bridge and in the field, as General Magruder had also; that nothing could have been more soldierly, and having thus shown ourselves equal to the most trying duty of the [97] soldier, the duty of standing and receiving fire without replying to it, he had determined we should certainly have the opportunity of seeing how well we could perform the easier part of returning fire, blow for blow — an opportunity we certainly did have at Malvern Hill, ad satietatem, or ad nauseam, as the case might be, according to the degree and intensity of a man's hankering and hungering for fight. As for our own feelings upon this subject, just at this time, we had but that moment turned our backs upon a scene no ways calculated to impart hot stomach for battle.

The six brigades of General Magruder's command-Barksdale's, to which we were attached, being one-had arrived at Frazier's farm the preceding night after dark and too late to take part in the engagement. We were overpowered with fatigue, intent only on sleep, and sank to rest amid the wreck and death of the hard-fought field. In the shadowy dawn, as our guns, moving into position to reopen the fight, threaded their way through the confused bivouac of the slumbering, the dying and the dead — the mysterious hush of the battlefield resting over all-we saw, side by side, upturned together to the bleaching dew, the pale faces of the breathing and the breathless sleepers, not distinguishable in the dim morning twilight. Suddenly the drums beat to arms and the living rose,--and then the stolidest veteran in that vast multitude shuddered as he left the side of his ghastly bedfellow who had rested with him so quietly all that summer night, and by whose side the frame that now shrank away with horror might rest to-night as ghastly as he.

All of us had been longing for a sight of Jackson. It is impossible to exaggerate or even to convey an adequate idea of the excitement and furor concerning him about this time, both in the army and among the people.

On Sunday evening, not far from Savage Station, I had been struck directly over the heart by a spent ball, which glanced from a buckle, but blackened my breast and nauseated me somewhat. Next morning, still feeling badly and the battery remaining stationary for a time, I had retired a little from the line and was half. reclining at the foot of a huge pine that stood on the edge of the Williamsburg road. Hearing [98] the jingle of cavalry accoutrements toward the Chickahominy, I looked up and saw a half-dozen mounted men, and riding considerably in advance a solitary horseman, whom I instantly recognized as the great wizard of the marvelous Valley Campaign which had so thrilled the army and the country.

Jackson and the little sorrel stopped in the middle of the road, probably not fifty feet off, while his staff halted perhaps a hundred and fifty yards in his rear. He sat stark and stiff in the saddle. Horse and rider appeared worn down to the lowest point of flesh consistent with effective service. His hair, skin, eyes, and clothes were all one neutral dust tint, and his badges of rank so dulled and tarnished as to be scarcely perceptible. The “mangy little cadet cap” was pulled so low in front that the visor cut the glint of his eyeballs.

A ghastly scene was spread across the road hard by. The Seventeenth and Twenty-first Mississippi, of our brigade, had been ordered into the woods about dusk the evening before and told not to fire into the first line they met; but the poor fellows ran into a Federal brigade and were shocked and staggered by a deadly volley. Splendid soldiers that they were, they obeyed orders, held their own fire, laid down and took the enemy's. Almost every man struck was killed, and every man killed shot through the brain. Their comrades had gone into the woods as soon as it was light, brought out the bodies and laid them in rows, with hands crossed upon the breast, but eyes wide-staring. A sickly summer rain had fallen in the night and the faces of the dead were bleached with more than death's pallor. Every eyeball was strained upward toward the spot where the bullet had crashed through the skull, and every forehead stained with ooze and trickle of blood. Men were passing through the silent lines, bending low, seeking in the distorted faces to identify their friends.

Jackson glanced a moment toward this scene. Not a muscle quivered as he resumed his steady gaze down the road toward Richmond. He was the ideal of concentration, --imperturbable, resistless. I remember feeling that if he were not a very good man he would be a very bad one. By [99] a ludicrous turn of the association of ideas, the old darkey minister's illustration of faith flashed through my brain: “Bredren, ef de Lord tell me to jump through a stone wall, I's gwine to jump at it; jumpin‘ at it ‘longs to me, goin‘ through it ‘longs to God.” The man before me would have jumped at anything the Lord told him to jump through.

A moment later and his gaze was rewarded. A magnificent staff approached from the direction of Richmond, and riding at its head, superbly mounted, a born king among men. At that time General Lee was one of the handsomest of men, especially on horseback, and that morning every detail of the dress and equipment of himself and horse was absolute perfection. When he recognized Jackson he rode forward with a courier, his staff halting. As he gracefully dismounted, handing his bridle rein to his attendant, and advanced, drawing the gauntlet from his right hand, Jackson flung himself off his horse and advanced to meet Lee, little sorrel trotting back to the staff, where a courier secured him.

The two generals greeted each other warmly, but wasted no time upon the greeting. They stood facing each other, some thirty feet from where I lay, Lee's left side and back toward me, Jackson's right and front. Jackson began talking in a jerky, impetuous way, meanwhile drawing a diagram on the ground with the toe of his right boot. He traced two sides of a triangle with promptness and decision; then starting at the end of the second line, began to draw a third projected toward the first. This third line he traced slowly and with hesitation, alternately looking up at Lee's face and down at his diagram, meanwhile talking earnestly; and when at last the third line crossed the first and the triangle was complete, he raised his foot and stamped it down with emphasis, saying, “We've got him ;” then signalled for his horse, and when he came, vaulted awkwardly into the saddle and was off. Lee watched him a moment, the courier brought his horse, he mounted, and he and his staff rode away.

The third line was never drawn-so we never “got” Mc-Clellan. [100]

I question if any other man witnessed this interviewcertainly no other was as near the two generals. At times I could hear their words, though they were uttered, for the most part, in the low tones of close and earnest conference. As the two faced each other, except that the difference in height was not great, the contrast between them could not have been more striking — in feature, figure, dress, voice, style, bearing, manner, everything, in short, that expressed the essential individuality of the two men. It was the Cavalier and the Puritan in intensest embodiment. These two great roots and stocks of British manhood had borne each its consummate flower in the rank soil of the New World.

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